CHOTEAU, MT - April 16 - One of America's most stunning landscapes, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, faces a new round of natural gas drilling proposals.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced late yesterday that it had initiated the review process [Environmental Impact Statement] required for new drilling permits on several existing leases located on public lands in the Blackleaf area, right in the heart of Montana's Front.
"Montanans understand that the Front is a special place, and we've worked together for generations to protect it," said Karl Rappold, a rancher from Dupuyer, Montana. Rappold is a member of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, an organization of ranchers, hunters, anglers, local business owners, public officials, conservationists, and other Montanans who are working to protect the Front.
"The Front contains some of the best wildlife habitat in the United States," continued Rappold. "It would be a shame to ruin that for, at best, a few days worth of natural gas. The Front is where we work, hunt, and live. It represents the tradition and heritage of Montana a heritage that many of us would like to see protected for our grandchildren."
Montana's Rocky Mountain Front stretches for over a hundred miles, from Glacier National Park to near Helena, Montana. It is a place of unparalleled natural beauty with massive limestone cliffs that gaze out onto a Great Plains virtually unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark. With the exception of wild bison, the full complement of native wildlife still inhabits the Front.
The Front's long north-south strip of wildlife habitat is so rich that Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department consider the Front to be in the top one percent of wildlife habitat in the United States.
The BLM estimates that the analysis alone for the new drilling permits will cost U.S. taxpayers at least $1 million. The only company that is actively considering whether to drill along the Front is Startech Energy Inc., which is based in Calgary, Alberta, and wants to drill three gas wells at one site within the Blindhorse Outstanding Natural Area of the Blackleaf area.
The BLM agrees that very little natural gas rests beneath the Blackleaf area. On January 28, 2002, the BLM's Montana state office released a "Statement of Adverse Energy Impact" for the Blackleaf unit of the Front. The BLM estimated there to be .014-.106 TCF of gas there, the equivalent of two days of natural gas for the country. Furthermore, Startech has estimated only a one-in-four chance of finding economically recoverable gas in the Blackleaf.
"It is sad that the BLM will spend more than one million dollars to do a study that goes against public opinion and common sense," said Chuck Blixrud, an outfitter and owner of the 7 Lazy P Guest Ranch in Choteau, Montana. "That money could be used for other things like protecting the Front, which would be better in the long run for local people and the economy. The Front is where many of us live and work."
Senator Max Baucus also has challenged the validity of the leases. In a March letter to the BLM, Baucus wrote: "I believe it is not appropriate for the BLM to move forward with spending taxpayer dollars on a controversial EIS, addressing development on federal oil and gas leases in the Blackleaf area unless and until your agency can verify that the leases themselves were validly issued."
Montanans have a long history of protecting the Front, dating to the 1913 creation of the state's first game preserve (Sun River) to the 1972 creation of the nation's first citizen initiated Wilderness Area, the Scapegoat Wilderness.
In 1997, the Forest Service placed the Front off limits for any new leasing for 10-15 years. During public consideration of that proposal, more than 80% of the comments received by the Forest Service supported the no new leases decision. This decision, however, did not apply to pre-existing leases such as those in the Blackleaf region where the drilling applications now being considered by the BLM.
The Bureau of Land Management will hold public meetings in May 2004, all in an open-house format, at five locations across Montana. The meetings will be May 3 in Choteau; May 4 in Great Falls; May 5 in Missoula; May 17 in Helena; and May 20 in Browning. All will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The exact locations of the meetings have yet to be announced.